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Bush Weighs in on Guns, Agricultural Subsidies, and Education

John Pemble
Former Florida Governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush inside his West Des Moines campaign headquarters.

IPR's Clay Masters interviewed former Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush at his West Des Moines headquarters Wednesday. The full transcript is below.

CM: Governor Bush, you’re doing your longest swing through Iowa this week. Why haven’t you been focusing more time here in Iowa?

JB: I’ve been here quite a bit. This is my longest trip for sure. I’ll be here two and half days. I’ve been here what, five or six times? We have a great ground game that we’re working on. I’ve been told at least we have more people signed up in positions of leadership in the 99 counties and that we’re going at it. You build on your success. We just started to advertise—actually the Right to Rise PAC started to advertise, not our campaign. We’re doing all the campaign organization out of these two offices, we have good field staff, candidate gets better every time he gets out there, things are looking good.

CM: One of the things that you have that many of your rivals in the Republican party don’t have as they’re running for President, is you’ve spent some time campaigning here with both your brother and your father. What has that taught you as you’ve been spending time campaigning in the Iowa caucuses?

JB: Well first, I did this first in 1979 where I spent a lot of time out here. My brother Marvin and I kind of shared the responsibilities of sons of George H.W. Bush and it was a blast. People in Iowa are really nice. The idea--I hear it from time to time, as I come back as a candidate, Iowa Nice, it still exists for the record. People are very civil, very informed, thoughtful, polite, it’s a great place to campaign.

CM: Has it changed?

JB: My vague recollection of 1979? It’s a while back. It—I think the caucus system still has the same, the same function, you gotta go at it, you gotta recruit people. I spend a lot of time on the phone when I’m not here, making phone calls to people all across the state, humbly asking for their, not just their vote, but as you know, not just your vote, but having their involvement in the caucus, meaning they show up in the evening on February 1st for two hours, in what will be a pretty cold time of the year in Iowa, and that they recruit other people to do it. It’s not an easy ask. So that hasn’t changed. And advertising is less relevant than organization, I don’t think that has changed. Agriculture is still a huge, maybe even bigger now, certainly more powerful in terms of its global impact. Iowa agriculture, like Florida, and California, Texas, generate huge income for the state because of agriculture. So the fundamentals are still the same.

CM: We’re asking all the presidential candidates to describe Iowa in two or three words. What are your two or three words?

JB: Nice and beautiful. This time of year it’s unbelievably beautiful.

CM: Again February 1st it might feel a little bit different.

JB: I remember it’s a little bit colder but I love the harvest season.

CM: Switching gears here, the mass shooting in Oregon last week. You caught some heat for some comments you made. If not more government control over background checks and who can purchase guns, what do you do to solve this, to stop these mass shootings from happening?

JB: Well, the impulse to do something needs to focus on what the problem is. The simple fact is national gun control is not going to solve these tragic, tragic mass killings. These are deranged people who have serious mental illness problems, who in most cases take their own lives. Clearly, there should be a way in a society as prosperous as ours to identify these people before they reach that kind of level of despair and kill people they don’t even know and then take their own life. So I think the focus ought to be from the bottom up, not the top down. That’s my natural instinct; that’s what’s created the greatness of our country. It ought to focus on the things that could help solve the problem and I think a greater awareness of people when they’re in these spiraling out of control and having communities realize that there are a lot of people living in isolation in our communities that need attention, need treatment, need support. All of these things would be better than, as the president said, “I’m going to politicize this.” Well, that’s just not the answer to tragedy to begin with. I think you should pause and reflect on the tragedy and be sensitive to it and then offer solutions that actually might be relevant.

CM: So would you argue for more federal funding for mental health?

JB: Yea, I mean, if there was a need for that type of thing. Look, mental health is difficult because it’s— we haven’t— we really haven’t— there’s a lot of dual diagnosis with mental health. A lot of people are mentally ill and also have drug or alcohol challenges. It’s a complex part of the community health network. It’s much more difficult. The solution should be forced at the community level and the federal government should play a supportive role, rather than the other way around. That’s what I do believe.

CM: Switching gears a little bit, focusing on communities. Sanctuary cities—some parts of Iowa have been labeled this, lax immigration laws, unauthorized immigrants can live here and they’re not sought after as much. You spoke in the August debate about eliminating sanctuary cities, you also talked a lot about trying to get the millions of unauthorized immigrants out of the shadows. How do you meet somewhere in between those two ideas?

JB: Well there’s no conflict there, sanctuary cities basically are local governments that are defying federal law. What we need to do is change the law to solve this problem. And that needs to be done at the federal level. There’s different forms of sanctuary cities, the one that I think most of us are most concerned about are places like San Francisco where people are released back into the population after committing crimes and there should be greater coordination. There should be coordination between federal authorities and local authorities. Clearly that should be eliminated when you’re openly defying federal law in that regard. As it relates to the solution to immigration it’s to secure the border, to have an e-verify system that’s verifiable, to deal with the visa overstayers using technology, and putting resources to bear across the country where people extend their stay way beyond the legal time. And then create a path to legal status over an extended period of time where you earn a provisional work permit, you pay taxes, you don’t commit crimes, you pay a fine, you learn English, you don’t receive federal government assistance, and over an extended period of time, you earn legal status. You don’t cut in the line to push someone back in the line that’s been patiently waiting overseas to come into our country. That, to me, is the practical approach. It’s the conservative approach  because it doesn’t put border security still front and center as an important element of this. It’s not going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars, which deporting everybody as fast as you can, it’s not practical and it won’t work, but if it was actually implemented it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, that’s the trump plan. That’s been analyzed by a lot of people and verified.

CM: Do you like the idea of a wall? Your rival Donald Trump likes to talk about that wall a lot.

JB: Not particularly practical in places where you can’t build a wall. You can talk about it but the simple fact is there are places where a wall can’t work. There are places where it is effective and we have it now and it’s been effective. We need a strategy. It’s not just this grandiose idea that you’re going to build a wall, just kinda say that’s the point. There’s a lot more to this. There’s ways where fencing and building a wall is important, and most of that’s been done. Secondly, you need to have border patrol forward lean towards the border. You need to use technology, there’s a way to use GPS technology and predators, not predator drones, but drone technology to be able to identify where people are. And then you need to create a healthy deterrent effect. We had—we had a majority of people that have come into our country through the border recently came from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, those so-called Northern Triangle countries. They came  because of a loophole in the law, that said if you can make it, then you can claim that you had a founded fear of persecution, or that you were part of a— that your life was endangered because you were a child, then you were processed in. And two or three years later, god knows how many people are actually going to show up to the immigration hearing. We should eliminate these kinds of magnet effects, because it’s a huge risk for people to travel all the way across Mexico to leave the country. We should help those countries actually create greater security and more economic opportunities so people aren’t forced to leave. There are practical solutions to this. And I have practical experience to provide those practical solutions.

CM: I noticed as I was coming in here to speak with you—we’re in your West Des Moines headquarters here—there’s something sketched above one of the desks that says “How do we combat Trump?”

JB: [laughs]

CM: Is he hurting this process in the Republican presidential race?

JB: You know, it’s interesting, ‘cause one thing he’s doing and you have to give him credit— there are two things, I think. Some of the things he says are absolutely divisive, offensive, wrong, and not grounded in fact. But I think people admire his political incorrectness. There’s a point past which you gotta stop it, but we’re way uptight as a society. And Trump has, you know, I think, played a constructive role to get people to   lighten up a little bit about their righteousness of everything, you know? It’s okay to have a differing view. So that’s one thing he’s done. The other thing is he’s attracted a whole lot of people to watch the debates. I mean, these numbers are phenomenal, four or five times more people watching the debates than four years ago, which were important debates as well. So he gets credit for bringing an attention to the process, but he’s going to have to have his views vetted and his life story vetted like everyone else. He’s a serious candidate, as evidenced by the fact he’ll be the first to tell you, he’s winning in the polls. Well when his tax plan is vetted, and it’s scored at 12 trillion dollars of deficit and it doesn’t have the same dynamic effect as our tax proposal, people need to know that. The press will do their jobs, and overtime, I think, he’ll be treated with the same scrutiny. When that happens, it might not look as pretty as it does right now.

CM: In July, you mentioned you’d like to work towards ending subsidies. You also mentioned earlier on in this interview, Iowa’s agricultural economy. There’s a lot of bipartisan love for both the renewable fuel standard, that is, how much ethanol is blended into gasoline here in the state, there’s also a lot of bipartisan support for production tax credit for wind energy. How would you incentivize clean energy without federal subsidies?

JB: Well if you talk to the producers of wind, there’s been such a dramatic decrease in the cost per watt of production that the tax credit is no longer needed. And  I think it ought to be phased out. And I think there is no subsidy for ethanol, there used to be, and that was several years ago taken away, but there’s the mandate. And I think the mandate, the one sensitivity here is there’s been billions of dollars of money invested in sunk cost. You know, you can’t just immediately do something about it. I think that you have to be sensitive to. But I think ultimately we need to get to a point where there aren’t winners and losers, based on subsidies or mandates or anything else. My tax proposal calls for the elimination of the subsidies, you know, the tax subsidies that exist for the oil and gas industry. And that’s the right way to go. The best way to produce the optimum energy mix in this country, I think is to let markets work. The federal government’s role ought to be provide research and development dollars to find the disruptive technologies. It could be that we’re around the corner from some discovery of  how to break up cellulose, so that you could have cellulosic ethanol being built, biofuels being produced that would be extraordinarily low cost that wouldn’t put pressure on pricing for food or anything like that. That kind of research and development, when it’s applied with the entrepreneurs of this country, that will be the far best way of doing it, than creating all sorts of rules through the EPA or through the venture capital arm of the Department of Energy. I think we’re tired of the Solyndras of this country. And ultimately that’s where we need to get; markets work far better.

CM: Bringing up the role of federal government, move to a different topic here, we’re covering a lot of ground. Education, common core is something you’ve come out differently than a lot of Republican presidential candidates in the race. What is the role of the federal government in education? Some are calling for just getting rid of the Department of Education?

JB: The role is limited. And the role of the federal government should be—should have nothing to do with the creation of standards, or even curriculum, or content, the federal government shouldn’t have that role. I believe the federal government’s role is to reform the higher education student loan program, which is another bubble about ready to burst. And then secondly, to be a partner in K12 reform, so if you wanted to create a corporate tax scholarship program or an ESA, Education Savings Account, which Nevada has just done. Title One moneys, right now, only go to fund right now only go to fund schools that have a disproportionate number of kids that are at or near the poverty level. The flexibility ought to be granted to allow those families to have an education savings account instead. Or if you have a child with a learning disability, in Florida, if your individual education plan isn’t being met, which is a requirement of federal law, you should be able to take the federal monies, as we do in Florida for the state and local monies to go to a private school without any discussion with anybody else. That’s the kind of reform that I think would be a catalyst for rising student achievement. But that’s as secondary role. The example I’ll give you is, I don’t know, we maybe had 300 employees when I was Governor in the Department of Education. 80% of them filled out the forms to comply with the rules associated with 10% of the money that came from Washington. So then you had bureaucrats on the federal government side, bureaucrats on the state government side, you have local governments filling out forms too for 10% of the total fund. That’s not the proper role, the role ought to be more of a partnership, not of mandates, not of telling people how to do it, but encouraging them to create a climate where there’s a greater likelihood that kids can learn. That’s what we ought to be focused on.

CM: You've got four months ‘til the Iowa caucuses, another year and some change to the general election, if you make it that far. What are you going to do to get enthusiasm behind your campaign?

JB: We’re getting it. You should have traveled with me, we could have done this interview me in Oskaloosa or Muscatine. There were big enthusiastic crowds. I’m getting those kinds of crowds as well in New Hampshire. Look, I’m not the biggest personality in the room, I’m not a narcissist, it’s not all about me. But people get a clue that I have a servant’s heart and I have a proven record of leadership. And at the end of the day, that matters, it’s not about the grandiosity, it’s not about the egos on the stage, it’s about how can we create an environment where people can rise up again and do it in a way that lifts people’s spirits along the way and unifies the country. Those leadership skills matter and I have a passion for that and I have a passion for people that feel like they’re stuck right now.

CM: What are you hearing from Iowans as the most important issue to them?

JB: It’s not dissimilar to other places, I mean, obviously there’s a greater emphasis on the ag economy and how important that is, particularly in harvest season, you know you get a sense that that’s really important. People are concerned about farm income, their income being lower than their costs, because prices are dramatically lower and farm income is going to be really bad after a great run. It’s gonna be down, what, 30-50% those are big numbers. So clearly people are concerned about that here. They’re concerned about education, economic development. And I think the principal thing Republicans are concerned about is how dysfunctional Washington is, how broke it is. And it gives me an opportunity to talk about how I disrupted the status quo when I was Governor and did things that other people haven’t had the chance to do. They can talk about it, but eight balanced budgets, triple-A bond rating, Veto Corleoni, I vetoed 2,500 separate line-items in the budget to bring discipline to the budget process. Our state government workforce declined by 11%, but we led the nation in job growth seven out of eight years, 1.3 million jobs were created. Greater reforms of any K through 12 system in the country occurred in Florida. I met a lady in Muscatine that showed me her precious two sons that she adopted when she was in Florida, moved up here, she adopted them from the foster care system. If it wasn’t for the reforms I demanded and put in place, she wouldn’t be able to have the joys of her life and these kids probably would be in really, really, really difficult circumstances now. That story of disruption needs to be brought to Washington and I tell that and I think it does appeal to people who are deeply frustrated with what’s going on.

CM: Governor Bush, thank you.

JB: Yea, thank you guys.

Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.
Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.